Millennialist ideas aren't just a matter of belief. We're faced with a very modern, very factual millennial problem: how do we interpret information, from around the world and from our own life-experience, which suggests that we could be heading for a global catastrophe? The spectre of hell, doom and destruction still lurks actively in our stock of concealed nightmare scenarios.
The world is stacked with dangerous signs: algal blooms, disturbing social statistics, enormous icebergs breaking away from Antarctica, magnetic fields changing, genocidal weapons still proliferating, cancers, diabetes and epidemics, climatic extremes and random massacres all increasing, frogs dying out...
As long as everything trundles along normally enough, we can fend off these nightmares. However, when things go wrong, when regular normality falters, our fears come welling up. Out there in the world, the markets panic, media bulletins speculate and fuss, outpaced bigwigs resign and brows are suitably furrowed. It all starts getting out of proportion. Rational control wobbles. Worst-case scenarios are, for once, looked at - irrationally.
We have left things so long that we secretly expect a disaster. Even rationalists who deny such things betray uncertainty behind their confidence. We expect disaster because the questions before us seem so enormous and urgent that, the way things are, we see no other alternative but disaster. However, a disaster is a disaster when one stands outside it, or as long as it's in the future - when one is in it, it is life, with no holds barred. It is our manifest reality.
Most people tend either to avoid these questions, often for quite good personal, short-term psychological survival reasons, or to be so overwhelmed by them that they see only cataclysm or doom ahead. Prophecies and apocalyptic beliefs add fuel to this. Yet the truth is, no one really knows what the future will bring. And there can be a tendency to grasp at straws. Disaster-scenarios lie at the extreme end of a spectrum of possibilities.
Some people see a disaster as a way of wiping the slate clean, removing certain distasteful problems in one fell swoop. Yet this can be an avoidance too - and they often see it happening to others, not themselves. We need to look at all possibilities - and the most difficult, engaging, exciting and realistic possibility is that we have several decades of radical, thorough change ahead - not a 'magic wand' scenario.
There will indeed be disasters - the late 20th Century has had its fill of them. Today, there is already a planetary disaster of immense proportions, likely to get bigger and worse. The disasters will get worse until we take a fundamental approach to resolving them. We have to give them everything we've got, make them top priority. As if we were mobilising for war - except without the war. It won't stop disasters happening, but the tide will start turning.
Disaster and crisis can have a positive effect by changing everything. They can bring us closer to each other and make us more real. Facing up to the hard truth of our situation changes our relationship with it, and what we once thought was a problem can turn quickly into a solution, by a flip of the heart and mind. Complexity breaks through into simplicity. Re-examined in a new light, avenues and windows become visible, and the 'problem' becomes a gift and an opportunity! Or at least a more manageable challenge.
Future decades are likely to be tough, with many wrenching changes. Social earthquakes are currently more predictable than geological ones. Yet each generation starts from a new baseline in judging what is and is not tough - and it is instinctively programmed up to deal with it. And new advantages will come to help us on our way.
The biggest advantage will be the sheer energy let loose when humanity accepts its situation and addresses it face-to-face. There are over 4 billion able-bodied souls available for mobilisation as a world-rescuing workforce (the world's population is larger, but people restricted by youth, age or disability aren't counted here). This will present many new challenges!
Many technological, social and conceptual solutions are already available or around the corner, though they need investment of resources and energy. Much relies on the quickness of our thinking. The biggest issue is actually social change - a change that redistributes resources more evenly, that eliminates the vast wastage in our world, that reduces consumption and increases global and social collaborativeness.
'Disaster' means change. Species are irretrievably dying out and environments are being changed permanently. Humanity is getting increasingly damaged, yearly. We will not be able to restore the past: a new balance will be necessary, managed by humans.
The scale of future disasters depends quite a lot on how quickly we face their causes. And the scale of their effect on us depends on our willingness and capacity to face what must be done. We can make a big difference.
Then there are unpredictables - astronomical, metaphysical or geological events, for which there are now many advocates. We can choose to trust their word or to see what happens.
This is a question of belief, and belief is one of the big questions of our time. Except one thing has changed - all serious commentators are agreed that the facts are already showing themselves and increasing.
Crises are likely, even certain. Yet a worldwide, total, final disaster is an idea which exists in our minds as a logical conclusion to what we currently know and anticipate. A massive wipe-out of humanity is not inevitable, though many could suffer - yet they already do suffer.
What is most likely is a period of several decades when the stakes are high, the unknowns are many, and there are both hard times and remarkable breakthroughs. Rather like today, except accelerated and deeper.
One thing is certain: although many prophetically-oriented, disaster-anticipating people speak in certainties because this is what they see, certainties are not the predictable order of the day in the next fifty years.
Book ends here. Return to Book Index NEXT BOOK: Deep Geopolitics
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.